Remembering A Labor Day Tradition

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This past weekend marked an anniversary of one of the more interesting experiments in IndyCar history. Labor Day weekend marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of the first IndyCar race at Ontario Motor Speedway located in Ontario, California. What started out as a grand design has now ended up being a trivial footnote in IndyCar history.

For those that don’t know (or too young to remember), Ontario Motor Speedway was essentially a clone of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There were some slight variations. The short chutes were slightly banked and the track was wider; both of which contributed to it being a slightly faster track than IMS. In a demonstration of having the blessing of IMS, Tony Hulman even arranged for some of the original bricks from the Speedway to be laid into victory lane at Ontario.

There was also a road course built into the infield, which IMS did not have.OMS 1a There had also been a drag strip constructed inside the track for NHRA events. The grandstand configuration was completely different from Indy as well. Ontario Motor Speedway – or the “Big O” as it was nicknamed – was quite a showcase. Unlike the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which was showing its sixty years of age – OMS was a state of the art racing facility.

The first race was called the California 500. Since the Indianapolis 500 was run on Memorial Day, OMS decided to run their race on Labor Day to start their new tradition.  The race was the third leg in the newly devised IndyCar racing Triple Crown, a set of three 500-mile races in the USAC schedule that was to be sponsored by Marlboro. Indy was the first leg, Pocono was the second and Ontario was the third. The inaugural race took place on September 6, 1970; and was won by Jim McElreath driving a Coyote owned by AJ Foyt. It was a huge success and was heavily attended; including many of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day.

Subsequent Labor Day races were won by Joe Leonard driving for Parnelli Jones in 1971, OMS 2Roger McCluskey driving for Lindsey Hopkins in 1972 and Wally Dallenbach in a Pat Patrick Eagle in 1973.  For two years, the race became a spring race run in early March. Bobby Unser won in 1974 while AJ Foyt won the next spring race in 1975. The second half of the decade saw the race moved back to Labor Day. From that point on, the event became the domain of the Unser family. Bobby won again in 1976, then in 1979 and 1980. His brother, Al Unser, won in 1977 and 1978.

Of course, NASCAR had to nose its way into the picture. More than likely, they claimed the facility was built exclusively for them. To the chagrin of NASCAR loyalists, the first two NASCAR events at OMS were won By AJ Foyt in 1971 and 1972. NASCAR did not run at the IMS look-alike in 1973, but returned in 1974.

Drivers enjoyed racing at the track and it looked surprisingly similar to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It offered many of the challenges of Indy without the mounting pressure. However, cracks soon began to surface in the financial structure of the facility. The financing was shaky from the start. One group owned the land, while another group owned the track. The majority of the funding came from bonds secured by the City of Ontario. Even with a sold out facility, there was not enough revenue to service the debt. The facility was doomed before it even started. The track eventually collapsed under the weight of its own debt.

Seemingly, as soon as the grand racing facility had appeared – it was gone. Ontario Motor Speedway closed following the 1980 season and was quickly demolished for development in 1981. A Hilton Hotel sprung up atop the old turn-four location. Most of the site has now been developed as a business park.

I never got to see Ontario Motor Speedway. I do recall the hoopla when it was under construction.OMS3 I remember seeing articles in the 1970 Indy program about the first race that would be happening that fall. Even as an eleven year-old, I thought it was pretty neat that they could reconstruct something as massive as IMS a couple of thousand miles away. I recall watching clips of the inaugural race on Wide World of Sports. There are various clips available on You Tube. I was in college when the track met its financial demise and had already forgotten about it. There was no internet and the track had already drifted into obscurity by then. I didn’t realize it was gone until about ten years later.

To see the explosion of racetrack construction that took place about ten years ago makes me recall how quickly the fate turned at OMS. One has to wonder about some of the new football and baseball facilities that have opened up this year that cost well over a billion dollars. Could they suffer the same fate as OMS – especially considering their financing was secured long before the current economic downturn took place? I have heard Curt Cavin estimate that it would cost well over a billion dollars to re-construct IMS in today’s environment. I don’t think he is very far off.

It’s sad to think about all the money, effort and dreams that went into creating a modernized version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and how it all went down the tubes in ten short years. But I did think about it yesterday – on Labor day, the thirty-ninth anniversary of Jim McElreath rolling his orange Coyote onto those transplanted bricks in victory lane at Ontario Motor Speedway.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Remembering A Labor Day Tradition”

  1. George,
    Great post. I knew that “once upon a time” there was a big oval in Ontario, CA, but never new the history.

    It was not the only IMS Clone to try to build a labor day tradition. Here in Minnesota, we too once had a 2.5 mile oval running a 500 on labor day. I did a post on it back in the spring over on my site. Check it out if you are interested…

    http://20prospect.wordpress.com/2009/06/11/twin-cities-motor-speedway/

    • I built all of the grandstand at the track. I drove the track many times at night. I also drove the road course in one of my karts. It was the king of facillties in the world at the time and would be still the best now wit safer barriers installed. I miss that place so much along with Riverside and the original long beach gp track and Irwindale Raceway.

      Thanks for the memories.

      Brian Warner

      Warner seating Co.

  2. I’m too young to explicitly remember OMS, but the first thing I think of relating to it is that it, Riverside, and Fontana were all within roughly 25 miles of each other. While the former two are really no more than memories of the past at this point, every time I hear of the struggles of Fontana, I just think that the inland empire region is simply not meant to have a race track. If Fontana ever shuts its doors, it’ll just be another example of history repeating itself.

  3. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    Homestead was originally configured to be a scaled down version of IMS. But the track was reconfigured twice to make it more like the rest of 1.5mile cookie cutter tracks that nascar prefers. Too bad…the drivers had to lift and maybe use the brakes.

  4. I know some will debate this, but I think the beginning of the wane of popularity of OWR dates directly back to the end of OMS and OWR at Pocono. As I’m sure you recall, it was right about that time that the first “split” (CART vs USAC) occurred. If memory serves, almost everyone left USAC with the exception of A. J. Foyt and Danny Ongais, and it also occurs to me this was about the time of the inaugural Michigan 500. Pocono, having sided with USAC was kinda left “holding the bag” as it were.

    Once the “Triple Crown” ceased to exist, CART pretty much assumed control of everything except Indy.

  5. Cliff Day Says:

    I was a young boy scout parading with American flag during opening ceremony a the inaugural California 500 in 1970. A few years later my buddies & I would drag race in the parking lot where the Ontario Mills Mall now stands.

    Today I am the Controller for the Ontario Airport Hilton which was built in what was nice turn 4 at OMS.

  6. I REMEMBER MY DAD TAKING ME TO A COUPLE OF RACES AT THE BIG O. I USED TO GET ON MY ROOF AT MY HOUSE OFF OF 6TH AND BAKER ST. AND WATCH THE RACE WITH MY DADS BINOCULARS. I EVEN GOT TO TEAR DOWN THE GRANDSTAND SEATS AFTER IT CLOSED DOWN, I WAS 13 YEARS OLD AND GOT PAID 56 DOLLARS A DAY FOR UNSCREWING THE SEATS AND STACKING THEM IN A TRUCK TRAILER.

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